The thorn barrier rustled. Skypaw instantly slipped out of the apprentices' den and looked across the clearing. Around the fallen beech, she could vaguely see shadows slipping over the grass. They're back!
She raced across the ground, her eyes searching the crowd. Where is she?
"Skypaw!" a stern voice meowed nearby, and Skypaw glanced guiltily towards its source to see Bumblestripe pad up to her, a frown on his face. "What are you doing still awake? You'll be too tired for training come dawn."
"Sorry." Skypaw hung her head. "I just wanted to..."
"Let me handle this," said a gentler voice nearby, and Skypaw looked up to see Dovewing quietly approach Bumblestripe. She ran a tail down the length of his flanks and added, "I'll take care of it. Go and get some rest."
Bumblestripe looked discontent for a moment, but seemed to think better of it. He wearily stumbled after Patchwhisker and Hazeltail towards the warriors' den to get some sleep.
Dovewing looked back to Skypaw. "But echoing your father's question, what are you still doing up? It's only a few hours away from dawn."
Skypaw shuffled her paws. "I had to know, Mother, about what happened at the Gathering," she mewed. "Did...did Rowanstar mention me at all?"
Dovewing looked concerned. "He did. I thought you'd already have known that."
"Yes, well, I just had to be sure."
Skypaw glanced up at her mother. "What did he say?"
Dovewing sighed, sitting down. "You have an ability, Skypaw," she meowed drowsily. "Use it. I'm in no mood to be a mockingbird and imitate everything I heard at the Gathering, particularly when I'm half asleep."
I can look into memories and relive them, Skypaw remembered. How come she hadn't used it before? I don't want to anger the wrong cats. She remembered Aura and Jayfeather. They both knew when a mind reader tried to probe their thoughts. But this was a different matter. Dovewing was asking her to look into her memories. Taking a deep breath, Skypaw looked into Dovewing's gaze, and entered her mind.
She found herself at the Gathering. Beside her were Runningleap and Thrushsong. All around her were many different WindClan, ShadowClan and RiverClan cats, and they were muttering nervously amongst themselves. Skypaw became aware that Reedstar had just finished speaking and had sat back down.
"Rowanstar," he meowed, turning to the ShadowClan leader.
Even though it was only a memory, Skypaw had to choke back a gasp of horror when she saw the ShadowClan leader. His face was completely...well, mutilated. One side of his face was covered with scars. There was only a sunken hollow where his left eye used to be. He was still recovering from the wounds inflicted by Lionblaze's claws. Did I really do that? I hadn't realized I hurt him so badly...
Rowanstar lifted his head and growled, "You see my wounds? You see my scars?"
The Clans murmured uneasily amongst themselves. Skypaw saw Pinenose narrow her eyes in pure hatred at ThunderClan, her tail bristling. The ShadowClan warriors edgily glanced at the ThunderClan cats, including the few warriors who had fought against the Clan and come to the Gathering, their wounds still healing but not severe.
"ThunderClan gave them to me," snarled Rowanstar, and he threw a dark look at Bramblestar, who sat on a branch just below him. "They would not let me leave. They scarred me and tore away one of my eyes."
Whispers of horror rang around WindClan and RiverClan, but the ThunderClan cats let out outraged yowls. Skypaw felt fury stiffen her to the spot. Rowanstar was lying, and he knew it, and he was branding ThunderClan as savage rogues. ShadowClan cats hissed in anger at the ThunderClan warriors. Nearby, Skypaw saw a nervous Larkpaw draw closer into his sister Stormpaw's side, and she curled her tail protectively around his dark brown flank.
Skypaw looked up to the Great Oak. Bramblestar leapt to his paws, his tail lashing in fury, and his eyes blazing as he glared at Rowanstar.
"Liar," he growled, much to the satisfaction of the ThunderClan cats. "You deserved what you received. You attempted to murder our deputy."
Outraged yowls now echoed around the Great Oak, from the three Clans. ShadowClan remained silent.
"Would you care to explain to the Clans exactly why you were on ThunderClan territory a quarter moon ago?" snarled Bramblestar, his voice elderly but nonetheless strong. "Bringing with you nearly all of your warriors?"
Reedstar and Sedgestar stared in surprise at Rowanstar.
"Did you declare war on ThunderClan?" meowed Sedgestar in surprise.
"No!" hissed Rowanstar, his muscles tensing beneath his mottled pelt. "You should be thanking ShadowClan. If danger really is coming to the lake, then we all deserve to know what is threatening us, and ThunderClan is concealing all of the knowledge to themselves!"
Reedstar's eyes widened. "You attacked ThunderClan to try and get Aura?"
"Yes," snarled Bramblestar. "If it weren't for her insight forewarning us about Rowanstar's plan. He led a group of warriors onto the shore, to ambush the hollow on one side, while a smaller and secretive patrol prepared to ambush on the other."
He let his burning amber gaze sweep around the Clans gathered below. "Both patrols were beaten."
Skypaw, dwelling in Dovewing's memory, now looked around, trying to spot out the other cats who had been in the smaller ShadowClan patrol. Gradually she saw them, and abruptly she learned of their names. Applefur and Ratscar crouched among a knot of their Clanmates, bearing nasty-looking scratches. Grasspaw looked uncomfortable, licking a bite on his foreleg, while his littermates glared at the other Clans, as though it had been their fault, too. Gingerfleck and Starlingwing stood together, throwing uneasy glances at the other Clans, and Skypaw remembered that they had been the pair assigned to take Aura. The other member of the patrol, Shadowcloud, was nowhere to be seen, and Skypaw assumed that she was in the ShadowClan camp.
"When Lionblaze and a small group of warriors ambushed your patrol on the shore, you fought my deputy, and tore his throat deliberately," snarled Bramblestar, fury evident in every stiff word. "You tried to kill him. I will never forgive you for that, Rowanstar. The warrior code speaks of us not to kill."
Rowanstar hissed. "Then explain to me why Russetfur was murdered by Lionblaze in an unjust battle for that scrap of useless greenleaf Twolegplace grass!" he spat.
"Russetfur was not murdered!" yowled Rosepetal, leaping to her paws in furious indignation. "She was killing Firestar!"
"Lionblaze was only defending his leader!" called Ivypool.
But Skypaw could sense guilt in the she-cat's words. She stared closely at the silver-and-white tabby she-cat, and saw that same guilt flashing in her deep blue eyes. Why does she feel guilty? She didn't kill Russetfur!
"A way to defend your leader!" yowled Starlingwing. "Warriors fight battles! They can die, including Clan leaders! Russetfur was only defending her territory!"
Rowanstar whirled around to face Bramblestar, fury bristling in every movement he made. "It's your Clan's fault that we lost the clearing and Russetfur with it!" he snarled. "You deserve no sympathy. Firestar deserved to lose a life for the fool of a battle he led!"
His last words were drowned by outraged roars from the ThunderClan warriors. Nearly every single warrior had leapt to his or her feet, yowling indignantly and angrily. Skypaw felt shock and anger sear through her pelt. How dare Rowanstar insult Firestar? He had sacrificed himself to save the lake! He had been the noblest Clan leader for moons beyond measure!
"The clearing battle happened countless seasons ago!" snapped Bramblestar, his claws digging into the bough he was seated on. "I thought that we had set aside our differences in the many greenleafs that have passed since the Dark Forest battle. You owe your Clan's life to Lionblaze and you nearly kill him over the sake of an ancient ShadowClan deputy. Starlingwing is right; warriors do fight, and they can be killed. Accept that truth, and perhaps the Clans can go back to peace."
Rowanstar's remaining eye was wild as he stared at Bramblestar. "We will never be at peace!" he hissed.
Skypaw resurfaced from Dovewing's memories and stared in horror at her mother.
"In other words," Dovewing mewed wearily, "the Gathering was disastrous. Thank StarClan that you weren't there. I don't think Rowanstar's quite right in his head at the moment."
She sighed. "He's the oldest cat at the lake, I think. He was an apprentice in Tigerstar's rule in ShadowClan, uncountable seasons ago. It won't be long before he loses his final life."
Dovewing rose to her paws and brushed against Skypaw's flank. "Come on, back to the apprentices' den. You need to get your rest."
"Wait. Not yet."
Skypaw glanced over her shoulder in surprise, to see Jayfeather approaching her, his blue eyes grim.
He looked up at Dovewing. "I need to speak with her in my den," he mewed.
Dovewing looked surprised, but dipped her head in acceptance of Jayfeather's words and padded after her mate to the warriors' den. Skypaw turned back and approached the medicine cat.
"What is it?" she mewed quietly.
Jayfeather looked troubled. He simply flicked his tail, indicating Skypaw to follow. She did so, quietly padding after the ThunderClan medicine cat.
They slipped beneath the brambles that led into Jayfeather's den. The gray tabby tom trotted across the soft grassy ground and flicked his tail at one of the nests. "Sleep," he ordered.
Skypaw paused. "What?"
"I gave you an instruction," Jayfeather growled, glancing over Skypaw's shoulder.
"Well, I don't understand it," Skypaw replied indignantly, taking a step forward. "I could sleep in my own den."
"No." Jayfeather sat down with a small thud and glared at Skypaw. "You already know how disastrously the Gathering went. I need not elaborate the madness of Rowanstar to you. But tonight I received a vision while at the Gathering."
Skypaw stared. "A vision? From StarClan?"
"Surprisingly, yes," commented Jayfeather. "It was short but long enough. I saw three cats approach me, three cats I recognize well." His voice grew grim. "Hollyleaf, Firestar and Yellowfang. They came to me, and above them was a sky, a sky clear as water. Then I heard Firestar speak. 'It is time', he told me, and the vision concluded."
Skypaw frowned. "It is time? That's all he said?"
Jayfeather nodded. "Apparently, StarClan have been waiting for you to go to them. I'm not going to walk all the way to the Moonpool with you, so you sleep here, and hope that StarClan is going to approach you in your sleep. If they still have the strength to do that, that is..."
Skypaw frowned. "I thought we couldn't trust StarClan to give us accurate messages anymore."
"We can't. But I don't think it was a message," Jayfeather growled. "So you'd best sleep now and see what they want with you. I'll have a word with Cherrypelt. In the meantime, I gave you an instruction. Sleep." He indicated the nest again, then brushed past Skypaw and slipped out of the den.
Skypaw stared in bemusement after the medicine cat. Was he not quite right in the head, too?
She looked doubtfully at the nest. She looked back at the entrance to the medicine den. Vaguely, she wondered if she should go and find Aura, but the little tortoiseshell she-kit, now over three moons old, was fast asleep in the nursery with Frostkit and Jaggedkit.
I don't want to disturb her, she thought. And StarClan might not even visit in my sleep. There's no need to go telling her anything.
She curled up obligingly in the nest, and discovered that drowsiness was pressing down her eyelids. Wow. I guess I was tired after all, she thought, as she succumbed to her weariness and closed her eyes.
When Skypaw awoke, she was at first terrified she'd awoken again in the Dark Forest, and that the cats who she had overheard speaking with one another would come and find her.
But instead, she opened her eyes to find soft, green grass growing all around her. It shimmered with a mysterious frosty, speckled glow. Skypaw sat up to see tall, beautiful, slender-branched trees, shimmering with that same frosty substance, looming around her. The branches were laden with dark green leaves. She could scent life rustling the bracken, and warmth was everywhere. A warm sun rose high above Skypaw in a star-speckled sky.
A sun and the stars? Skypaw thought with surprise. She looked up. The sun was as round as the moon, thrown against a dark blue world. Tiny frosty white stars glimmered all across the sky, and though Skypaw had a sense that above was night, everything was lit up on the ground as if it were day. It feels like day, too...
Suddenly Skypaw became aware that she wasn't alone.
She whipped around. The bracken rustled for a moment, and then three cats, slender and graceful and with starlight in their fur, emerged into the small, tree-ringed clearing. Skypaw stared at them in astonishment.
One of them was a dark gray she-cat with a squashed, scarred face, and burning yellow eyes which were fixed upon Skypaw. Her fur was matted and tousled. She didn't look beautiful, but there was wisdom gleaming in the depths of her gaze.
The second was a slender nightblack she-cat, and her eyes were as bright green as new bud. They pierced Skypaw's fur, but they gleamed with love and kindness, and she waved her narrow tail in greeting.
The third was a majestic fire-golden tom, who had the same deep green eyes as the she-cat beside him, and they glowed as brightly as flame. There was a wonderous grace about the way he moved, and the sincerity across his face replenished with eternal youth. Though many of his scars had faded, he looked steadily at Skypaw and she was able to recognize him, even though she hadn't seen him before.
"Firestar?" she mewed softly.
Firestar bowed his head. "Welcome, Skypaw."
"Skypaw." The dark she-cat dipped her head respectfully to Skypaw.
"Skypaw." The ruffled scarred she-cat on Firestar's other side inclined her head slightly to the small dusky gray apprentice.
"Yellowfang? Hollyleaf?" Skypaw stared at the three cats, who gazed warmly back. "You're the three who spoke to Jayfeather at the Gathering. Who wanted to speak with me."
Firestar nodded. "We know, Skypaw."
"So you know about the power I wield?" Skypaw asked, her tail trembling with excitement. "You know about the Tigermarks?"
"We learned this from Rock when we came," Hollyleaf said. Her voice was as soft and as gentle as honeydew. "He told us all about the great gifts we had once possessed. He told us about the Four, and how they had always watched over us in life."
"Are they...are they here now?" Skypaw mewed.
"Of course not," said Yellowfang, with a single lash of her tail. "The Four don't bother with dead cats. None of the Four can even reach us in the afterlife."
She turned to Firestar and Hollyleaf. "I can't tell you anything about this Tigermark business," she added. "They're the ones who once possessed the Tigermarks. They're the ones who can really help you."
Curiously Skypaw turned to the old gray she-cat. "So why are you here, then?"
Yellowfang narrowed her eyes at Skypaw. "Because I choose to be, young fluff," she growled. She turned to Firestar. "Well? Are we going to walk with her or not?"
"Of course," Firestar soothed. "But we must speak alone first."
Yellowfang snorted and vanished like a shadow into the ferns.
"You need not mind Yellowfang," mewed Hollyleaf, with a small purr in her voice. "She has only been reflecting on the battle with the Dark Forest."
"She killed Brokenstar, didn't she?"
Firestar nodded. "Twice. It was her destiny to destroy Brokenstar. She brought that monstrosity into the world, and it was time for her to remove him from both this world, and the one after."
"And with Spottedleaf's death, she has been lonely, but she will heal, in time," Hollyleaf purred. "Until she is returned to the world, that is, as a newborn spirit, wiped of all memory, but bearing a single trace of Spottedleaf's essence."
Skypaw stared at her. "What do you mean?"
"Spirits can never truly be destroyed," meowed Firestar. "When their time has come to return to the world anew, the Four reach down and wipe them clean. All knowledge of the past, all memories, are banished from the spirit, until it is whole and pure, and then returned to the land of the living, to form a new spirit on the memories and the experiences of the new cat."
He waved his tail around StarClan. "This is what makes StarClan strong," he meowed. "This is what brings the light of purity into this land. We are rewarded for our time in the mortal world by wonderous prosperity and joys of hunting. Then we are born anew and sent back."
"But all this could end," murmured Hollyleaf, and her eyes glimmered with fear. "You have met Aura, I presume?"
"She bears a full blessing of the Tigermark," said Firestar. "She is more powerful than any other cat alive. She wields the Quarters of the Four. She will have the ability to alter all reality."
"What do you mean?"
"This is why Sol—" Hollyleaf hissed the rogue's name. "—wants her so desperately in his Clan again. Already Aura is changing the future. Let her powers grow while she remains in the mortal world, and she will have the power to alter Time itself."
Skypaw's eyes widened. "She told me. She said she could be able to bring back the past. Return Brokenstar, Hawkfrost...Tigerstar..."
"Yes." Firestar turned to Skypaw and met her gaze. "And you bear a Quarter Tigermark of Time. You have the powers to look into the future alongside Aura and to change it, and use it to protect the lake and the Clans."
Skypaw stared at Firestar. "From...the three enemy Clans?"
"Four," corrected Hollyleaf.
Skypaw's eyes widened. "Four?"
"Four Clans, under the united leadership of Sol, prepare to launch their ambush upon the lake, and eradicate their foes for good," growled Firestar. "BloodClan, SunClan, the Dark Forest and the Forgotten are under Sol's leadership, and every moon, his forces grow. It will not be long before Redwillow, messenger of the Dark Forest, discovers Aura's location in ThunderClan."
The Forgotten. "I remember that name," murmured Skypaw. "But I'm not sure what it is."
"The Forgotten is the realm in the sky where all cats who do not know of StarClan, or have turned their backs to us, are doomed to go when they die," meowed Hollyleaf, with a shiver. "Rogues, loners, kittypets, unbelievers and exiles all go there in death."
Skypaw's eyes widened. "BloodClan..."
Firestar nodded. "For moons, the Forgotten has been BloodClan territory. And now the Forgotten Clan will rise."
A tail curled over Skypaw's shoulders and she glanced up at Hollyleaf.
"Come," mewed the dark she-cat. "Walk with us."
StarClan revealed its beauty and glories to Skypaw as she followed Hollyleaf and Firestar through the starlit woods and meadows. All around her, small star-speckled spirits flashed like minnows, darting over the grass and pouncing on prey. Above, Skypaw could see a hawk circling above a windblown hill. What Skypaw presumed to be WindClan cats raced eagerly down the slope, chasing a terrified rabbit.
I know their names! Skypaw realized, her power-enhanced awareness returning in a flash. It's a patrol of WindClan warriors.
A long-limbed and very long-tailed tom, splashed black and white, led the way behind the rabbit. Behind him streaked a dark gray, almost black, tomcat. Alongside him raced a small white she-cat. A brown tabby tom pounded alongside a small ginger-and-white tabby warrior.
Firestar, kinking his tail, called out to the WindClan cats. "Tallstar!"
Tallstar leapt, landing squarely on the rabbit, and as he snapped its neck with a swift strike to its throat, he looked up at Firestar's call. His very long tail went up in pleasure. He indicated to his companions where Firestar, Hollyleaf and Skypaw were standing, and then, purring, the WindClan warriors bounded across a small stream to join them. The brown tabby tom picked up the rabbit and raced after them.
"Firestar, it is good to see you again," purred Tallstar, as he led his warriors to a halt.
"Still as fast as the wind, I see," Firestar commented.
The lean black tom strode forward. "Here in StarClan we are unburdened," he mewed. His gaze flashed to Hollyleaf.
She purred. "Hello, Father."
"Hollyleaf," Crowfeather mewed, and dipped his head to his daughter.
"Who is this?" asked the small white she-cat, flanking Tallstar's other side and gazing at Skypaw curiously.
"This is Skypaw, Whitetail," explained Firestar.
Recognition flashed in Whitetail's eyes. "Is she the one?"
"Yes, she's the one," Hollyleaf replied.
Skypaw glanced curiously at Firestar. "Do they know?"
"Of course we know!" purred the small ginger-and-white tabby tom, slipping around Whitetail's side and gazing at Skypaw with bright green eyes. "All the cats in StarClan know of Aura, and of your destiny, even if we cannot reach out as far to mortal cats."
The brown tabby tom came up beside him, dropping the rabbit. "It's an honour to have your presence with us, Skypaw of ThunderClan," he purred. He turned to Firestar. "And it is good to meet you again, old friend."
"Likewise, Onestar, Gorsepaw," Firestar replied warmly. Skypaw could see long-forgotten friendships gleaming in the old Clan leaders' eyes.
Crowfeather glanced at Skypaw. "I only hope that you and Aura can protect my sons," he said softly. "I want no harm to befall them."
"Aura already protected Lionblaze; have faith in her," Whitetail mewed gently.
"You...saw the battle with ShadowClan?" asked Skypaw quietly.
Gravely the WindClan cats nodded.
"We couldn't reach down and help you," Gorsepaw mewed quietly. "We could only watch as Rowanstar struck a killing blow on Lionblaze. But we knew that Jayfeather would reach his brother in time."
"You fought him well," Tallstar said. "As well as any blessed cat can fight a mad Clan leader. Rowanstar is old. Soon he will pass into StarClan, if he so chooses to walk alongside his own Clanmates, or let his heart be ruled by grief for Russetfur's long-ago demise and swear vengeance upon ThunderClan."
"But Russetfur's death happened many seasons ago," argued Skypaw. "Why does he bring up old grudges now?"
"He is afraid," said Onestar simply. "And scared cats do rash things."
"The Clans must not be divided," said Tallstar firmly. "Divided, they fall. United, they stand, and they remain. And that means all the Clans must come again."
Skypaw stared. "You mean...?"
"SkyClan? Yes," Firestar mewed. "But for now, at least, you do not need to worry about the other Clans." He curled his long ginger tail around Skypaw's shoulders. "Come. There are many cats to meet. Farewell, WindClan. May the swift winds guide your paws."
"And may the canopy of the trees forever guard you," Tallstar returned. He led his Clan away.
"Firestar," mewed Skypaw, as she fell into step alongside the old ThunderClan leader again, "What exactly do you mean, I have many more cats to meet?"
"There are many who have asked to see you," Hollyleaf said. "You are the new protector of the Clans. They wish to place their blessings over you."
They didn't seem to have been walking for long before suddenly Skypaw heard the sounds of a rushing river. Firestar, Hollyleaf and Skypaw emerged around a small copse of trees to see a group of RiverClan warriors lined up along the bank. For a moment, they were silent. Then, one by one, they shot their paws into the water and scooped up a flashing, flicking fish.
Then one of the RiverClan cats, a huge tabby tom, looked up. Skypaw forced herself not to flinch at his face and his horribly twisted jaw.
"Crookedstar!" Hollyleaf called delightedly. "We have brought her!"
Crookedstar abruptly sat up, as did the warriors around him. Skypaw glanced at each RiverClan warrior in turn. One of them was a slender, dark brown tom. An unusually spotted she-cat sat just beside him. A beautiful, graceful silver tabby she-cat crouched beside Crookedstar, and beside her was a slightly smaller imitation of herself, who purred and dipped her head in welcome.
"This is her?" meowed the spotted she-cat.
"Leopardstar. As fine as always," purred Firestar. "Yes, this is Skypaw."
"Skypaw!" breathed the dark tom in awe.
Skypaw nervously shuffled her paws. She wasn't sure what to say; the RiverClan warriors were gazing at her with deep respect in their eyes.
"So it's true, then?" One of the silver tabby she-cats rose to her paws and gazed across the river. "The Dark Forest is rising again?"
"Yes, Silverstream," murmured Firestar.
Beside Silverstream, the other silver tabby leapt to her feet and meowed, "It says that all Clans are to be united."
"The Tribe must stay out of this, Feathertail, I'm sorry," Hollyleaf meowed. "This is a matter that concerns only the Clans."
Feathertail lowered her eyes. "So I cannot even cross the skies to speak with Stormfur about this?"
"No," said Firestar firmly. "RiverClan needs you here, Feathertail, not with the Tribe of Endless Hunting."
Crookedstar turned to the dark brown tom who stood beside Leopardstar. "Mudfur? What do you make of this apprentice?" he meowed. "Is she worthy of becoming RiverClan's defender?"
Mudfur, the ancient medicine cat, gazed at Skypaw solemnly. "She is strong," he meowed after a moment. "She will grow into the role, I think. The Dark Forest will learn of her existence and they will fear her."
But I don't want to be feared, Skypaw thought, flicking her tail anxiously. I'm not sure if I'm ready to carry this burden...
"Then I pray that the Four watch over you well," said Crookedstar solemnly, dipping his head briefly to Skypaw. "As long as the river does not dry, the Clans will fight strong – darkness, air, water, sky and branch must all come together to survive."
Darkness, air, water and sky will come together, and shake the forest to its roots. The old prophecy that foretold of the death of the old forest flashed in Skypaw's mind. And then she began to understand. The cats that Firestar and Hollyleaf are taking me to meet... they are giving me the parts of my prophecy...
"Where can I find ShadowClan?" asked Firestar.
"They were near the marshes, last time I remember," Silverstream mewed. "Go and find them, quickly. The sun is rising over the ThunderClan camp. Skypaw must soon return."
Hollyleaf touched Skypaw's flank lightly. Quickly, after a last glance at the RiverClan warriors, she turned and bounded after Firestar and Hollyleaf, who were suddenly racing through the trees as though wings guided their paws.
"Who are we going to meet?" gasped Skypaw, as she raced alongside the two deceased ThunderClan warriors.
"You'll see." The three cats cleared a fallen tree in a single bound.
Skypaw's paws thudded into soft, wet earth, and surprised, she stumbled. All around her, the landscape had changed. The trees rose, tall and twisted, rather than beautiful and elegant, and the smell of moist dirt hit her scent glands. Firestar and Hollyleaf calmly landed on the ground, superbly indifferent.
"We wait," mewed Firestar calmly. "They'll be along soon. They'll have felt your presence in StarClan, Skypaw."
A moment later, they came. Skypaw watched many ShadowClan cats suddenly appear over a distant rise, spot the three ThunderClan cats, and come pounding towards them.
"Firestar! You brought her!" yowled a huge white tom, whose paws were as dark as coal.
A lithe brown tabby tom fell into step beside the huge white tom. "Just as strong as I thought she would be," he meowed.
Beside him crouched a lean-legged, flame-coloured tomcat, and he gazed at Skypaw with awe in his gaze. "So it's true, then," he meowed quietly. "Danger really is coming to the lake."
A russet-coloured she-cat came to stand beside her leader. "She's smaller than I thought she'd be."
"Blackstar. Littlecloud. Flametail. Russetfur." Firestar greeted each cat in turn, before meowing, "Yes, this is her. Skypaw. Danger is returning quickly to the lake, and the Four have chosen her to protect the Clans."
"And Aura to become the new Guardian," mewed Flametail.
"Despite her heritage? Despite her father being the cat who is seeking to destroy both worlds of the Clans?" snarled Blackstar, his fur bristling.
"Aura is Skypaw's only hope against SunClan," growled Hollyleaf impatiently.
Russetfur slid out her claws and dug them into the ground. "She's caused nothing but trouble since she first came to the lake," said the former ShadowClan deputy. "Rowanstar has now gone mad and nearly killed Lionblaze for my honour. Mine! I do not want ShadowClan to fight over me."
"You deserve to be fought for," Blackstar murmured.
"Not if it means that the blood of the Clans are spilled for my sake!" snarled Russetfur. "The Clans must be united, not divided. This is exactly the kind of rivalry that Sol wants to drive between us!"
"Russetfur is right," mewed what Skypaw suddenly realized to be a very young kit. With wide eyes, the pale gray she-kit with tousled fur stared up at Skypaw and mewed, "I died when I was young to the claws of a Dark Forest warrior. If it were not for ThunderClan, my brothers would have joined me. The Clans are strong when they are united. Warriors go into battle and they die in battle. The Clans may grieve, but they must move on, to make sure the living are protected and the dead are honoured."
Skypaw stared at Mistkit for a moment. Then she noticed the long gashes on her side, gashes that had never healed. Before she could stop herself, she mewed, "You're Dewtuft's and Sparrowtail's sister, aren't you?"
Mistkit nodded. "I am proud of what my brothers have accomplished in ShadowClan in the time I have passed from the living. Dewtuft is now ShadowClan's medicine cat." She turned and blinked at Littlecloud. "In the last days of your life, you taught him well."
"Thank you," Littlecloud said. "He was quick and willing to learn."
"Sparrowtail was one of Rowanstar's warriors in the recent ShadowClan and ThunderClan battle," Mistkit mewed. "And he fought well."
She looked steadily at Skypaw. "All the strength of the Clans will be needed to brace against the doom that is coming to the lake. Sol will return—you do not need my star-edged words to know this."
Blackstar narrowed his eyes. "To defeat the Clans, forgotten and drowned in blood, but united beneath the glow of the sun, the sky paths will be opened, and walked by the sky borne moon, to bring back the lost to the glow of the stars."
Skypaw stared at Blackstar. She wanted to ask what he meant, but something told her that she shouldn't ask. That eventually, all things would be made clear.
"ThunderClan," murmured Flametail. "You must go now, quickly. The sun has risen above the hollow, and she must return to her Clan soon."
"Of course." Firestar turned and leapt away. Skypaw and Hollyleaf quickly followed. Skypaw threw a glance back at the ShadowClan cats, and for a moment, the two warriors, medicine cat, apprentice and kit stared after her. Then they turned and raced back through their own territory, vanishing into a distant copse of pines.
Around her the scenery changed. Everything became green and fresh once more. The scent of water hung in the air. Dappled sunlight splashed through the tangled tree limbs and flowed through the leaves budding on the branches. Skypaw raced behind Firestar and Hollyleaf, wondering where they were taking her.
ThunderClan. Of course! Skypaw realized.
A moment later, Firestar emerged onto the edge of the trees, Hollyleaf at his side. Skypaw skidded to a halt and stared in stunned disbelief down the side of a steep gully that yawned down into a secluded clearing.
Countless cats milled below, and they looked up excitedly as the three cats appeared on the edge of the rise. Skypaw found that she knew all of their names, surfacing to the front of her mind as though she had known all her life. Lionheart and Bluestar rose quickly to their paws and began to race up the slope. Yellowfang rose to her feet where she crouched beside Cinderpelt, Featherwhisker and Goosefeather at the edge of the clearing. They yowled Skypaw's name. Many ThunderClan warriors turned their eyes up to the top of the hollow.
Swiftpaw, Brightheart and Thornclaw glanced up and purred as they saw Skypaw. Robinwing, Fuzzypelt and Sunstar whispered excitedly amongst themselves. Sweetpaw, Rosetail, Sweetbriar and Poppydawn called up a greeting to the cats at the top of the rise. Whitestorm and Brackenfur looked at Skypaw with pride in their gazes, as though both had known Skypaw in life and were glad to see her again. Adderfang and Tawnyspots raced across the clearing to find Frostfur, Larksong, Speckletail and Thrushpelt, who were all climbing out from beneath a matted bramble bush.
Some of these cats are so ancient no living ThunderClan warrior has even heard of them, thought Skypaw in shock. It has to be my foresight coming forward and taking over my knowledge, giving me wisdom of ancient ThunderClan...
She looked back down in the hollow. She could see two kits, standing side by side, looking curiously up at her. Snowkit and Mosskit, she knew abruptly. The son of Speckletail and daughter of Bluestar.
Then she realized that Lionheart and Bluestar, who were approaching Skypaw, Firestar and Hollyleaf, weren't alone. On either side of Bluestar walked a beautiful white she-cat with soft gray eartips, and a silver-gray she-cat, whose pale gold eyes were warm with indescribable love.
"Skypaw," Bluestar meowed solemnly. "You have come."
Skypaw nervously dipped her head to the former ThunderClan leader.
"There is no need for such formal pleasantries," purred Lionheart, and quickly Skypaw looked up again. "Here, all of ThunderClan has gathered to see the new defender of the Clans."
"We are so glad to see that you have finally come to StarClan at last," purred the silver-gray she-cat. She turned to Bluestar. "Is she ready to learn the final part of her prophecy?"
"I don't think she could have been readier, Moonflower," purred the white she-cat.
"Snowfur, I agree completely," said Bluestar. Skypaw realized who these cats were; Bluestar's sister and mother. "Firestar, Hollyleaf, you did well bringing them here."
Hollyleaf bowed her head. "I was honoured to find Skypaw, and to meet my kin."
"As was I," agreed Firestar. "Now, it is time for Skypaw to receive the final blessing of StarClan, and to learn of the complete prophecy that will tell the Fate of the Clans."
Bluestar glanced at her companions. "Shall I speak it?"
Lionheart nodded. Snowfur curled her tail around her paws. Moonflower twitched one ear and said nothing.
"Very well." Bluestar turned to Skypaw. "You have a great destiny ahead of you," she mewed. "Aura has come to the Clans, as we had hoped. As the enemies rise, the dead seek to destroy StarClan, and the living seek to destroy the mortal Clans. But the skies will be torn, and the star's light ripped from the earth. This is how it must be, for the sake of the Clans to survive. The time of our guidance has come to an end."
Skypaw stared in horror at Bluestar. "What? What are you saying?"
"The time of the guidance of StarClan is over," Lionheart explained. "You have heard of our frail connection to the Clans? The Moonpool is little better than a puddle of water now. The damage that the Dark Forest has done to us has ripped a gaping hole of the bindings that allow the communications to flow between us and the Clans."
"The Clan cats cannot rely on StarClan any longer to protect them," said Moonflower. "That is why the Guardians are here."
"We knew that one day, our connection to the Clans will be destroyed," murmured Lionheart. "That is why we guided the Clans to the lake, where we knew that Rock would watch over the Clans, and protect the Three. Where the Guardians will be forever, in the dark of the tunnels."
"Rock's time with the Clans is almost done, and Aura's is just beginning, should the Clans survive to see the new dawn of the Clans," meowed Snowfur. "When your task is complete, and the connection of dead and living is finally severed, the Clans must look to the Guardian to guide them."
Skypaw felt fear creep through her fur. "So...soon StarClan will be lost to the Clans forever?"
"A sacrifice that is necessary," murmured Lionheart. "Cats will come to us in death. The gateway into StarClan will remain open. But they cannot return once they have entered."
"But what about Clan leaders?" Skypaw mewed.
Hollyleaf lowered her eyes. "They will be just as mortal as any of their warriors and deputies."
Skypaw whipped around and stared in disbelief at Hollyleaf. "The nine lives of a Clan leader has been going ever since the founders of the Clans!"
"When the connection is broken, we can do that no more," meowed Moonflower gravely. "Should your destiny be completed, and the Clans saved from the coming dangers, the connection will be shattered."
"Do not despair," growled Bluestar, as Skypaw, still disbelieving, glanced back at the old ThunderClan leader. "This is how it has doomed to be. With our sacrifice to the Clans, they will always be safe. This will be the battle that will determine the future of the Clans. If SunClan triumph, then we are destroyed. And if the Clans triumph, then they will be mortal, as any Clan can be."
"Times are changing," Firestar said. Skypaw glanced at the majestic fire-golden warrior. "Remember your prophecy, Skypaw: Divided, we fall. United, we stand, and we remain. And that means all the Clans must come again. Darkness, air, water, sky and branch must all come together to survive. Forgotten and drowned in blood, but united beneath the glow of the sun, the sky paths will be opened, and walked by the sky borne moon, to bring back the lost to the glow of the stars. The skies will be torn, and the star's light ripped from the earth. This is how it must be, for the sake of the Clans to survive."
Suddenly, behind her, Skypaw heard pawsteps. She spun around to stare at the pale, misty forms of four cats.
The ancient Clan leaders, Skypaw thought abruptly. They are the ones who, long ago, banished SkyClan from the old forest.
"Greetings, Skypaw," meowed one of the leaders. "I am Redstar. Once, long ago, I was the leader of ThunderClan."
"I am Birchstar," said a second. "And RiverClan was mine to call my own."
"I am called Dawnstar," mewed a third. "ShadowClan was my Clan once."
"And I am Swiftstar, old leader of WindClan," said the fourth.
Redstar's eyes were solemn. "Long ago, Cloudstar, leader of SkyClan, came to us and asked for help. The Twolegs had destroyed SkyClan's territory. For fear of our own Clans, we refused to help them. And we exiled them."
"That mistake has haunted us for all the time we have been in StarClan," meowed Dawnstar quietly. "We have sought to amend things."
"When Leafstar of new SkyClan received the nine lives of a Clan leader, we promised that one day, we would repay SkyClan," said Swiftstar. "And now that time of repayment has come."
"SkyClan must return to the four Clans!" yowled Birchstar.
Skypaw stared in amazement at the long-dead Clan leaders. "But...but where would they stay?" she meowed. "Where would they belong at the lake?"
"The upper woodland territory of ThunderClan where the deer run swift is the place for SkyClan to be, and forever belong," meowed Birchstar. "The fifth Clan must return to the lake. And they will stay forever here. Never again will they be driven out by Twolegs again."
United, we stand, and we remain. And that means all the Clans must come again.
"And so you have learned of your destiny," Firestar said solemnly. "Go now, and wake. Our message to you has been passed. But your training has only begun."
"Will I ever see you again?" mewed Skypaw.
Bluestar dipped her head. "Even I cannot be certain."
Then everything melted and trickled away, and Skypaw found herself tumbling down, back into wakefulness.